Founder and COO of Taking the Lead, Chelsea Whitaker, OTR/L, discusses hippotherapy and how this distinct practice can help individuals with autism and other disabilities. She describes how working with the natural movement of horses enables clients to build self-confidence, gain independence and reach their goals. Whitaker provides video examples of therapy exercises and outlines how they can improve communication, physical strength, and focus. She closes with a question & answer session where she discusses training, extant research, and more.

In this presentation:

1:40 – Why hippotherapy?
3:30 – Taking the Lead intro video and testimonials
9:04 – Benefits of hippotherapy
12:00 – Video: Core strength movements
15:00 – Video: Focus exercises
19:53 – How does it work and who is it for?
21:41 – Testimonials
24:07 – Frequently asked questions
28:00 – Q&A


Hippotherapy is, “a treatment strategy used by a licensed occupational, physical, or speech therapist to achieve an individual’s goals through riding horseback” (2:48) It uses the characteristic movements of a horse to provide carefully graded motor and sensory input based on individual capabilities and needs. This type of therapy can be used by individuals ages two and up with all types of disabilities, including autism, anxiety, AD/HD, down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, etc. (21:00). Hippotherapy aims to support clients as they age and to increase self-reliance at home, at school, and in the workplace. Hippotherapy sessions take place on the horse while trained therapists work with the clients to achieve decided goals (i.e., positions, maneuvers, speaking, etc.). 

The presenter outlines six main benefits of hippotherapy:

  1. Confidence (9:35) – Being able to control a 1,000 lb animal with their own words and actions increases self-esteem and self-confidence.
  2. Balance (10:55) – Clients must shift their weight (in hips and lower body) to keep up with the horse. To do this, they need to know where their body is in space (proprioception) and keep a balance in sync with the horse’s movements. 
  3. Strength and mobility (12:02) – Therapists assist clients in performing core strength exercises (12:30) and movements (13:15) while the horse is walking. This requires engaging the entire core and maintaining posture.
  4. Focus (14:40) – Treatments regulate body movement and following 1,2, and 3 step commands. Horses are trained to obey directional communication via body movement and words (15:00) — if the client is not focused on their goal, the horse does not continue. 
  5. Communication (16:30) – Clients must constantly communicate with the horse via words, body movement (leaning, squeezing legs/feet), ASL, or other alternative communication devices. 
  6. Motivation (17:15) – Clients are motivated by the novelty of riding horses and the potential for riding independently as goals are set and attained. Sessions focus on completing doable tasks, following directions, and achieving goals. These skills translate well outside of the farm. 

Hippotherapy treatment strategies are individualized and specific to each client’s strengths and needs (19:53). At every Taking the Lead session, the rider is accompanied by a leader and two side-walkers. As they improve and meet the set therapy goals, supports are incrementally taken away until the client can ride independently. Whitaker describes hippotherapy as a technique that teaches critical social skills and physical milestones through an experience children love and enjoy within a supportive community where they feel they belong (19:00). Testimonials from clients who spoke their first words and took their first step at Take the Lead are featured (21:41)

During the Q&A (28:00), Whitaker discusses differences in hippotherapy and therapeutic riding, finding hippotherapy professionals, how horse movements help with stimming, and much more. 

About the speaker:

Presented by Chelsea Whitaker, OTR/L, Founder & COO of Taking the Lead, a non-profit organization which helps children and adults with disabilities gain independence, build self-confidence, and learn to function at their highest levels through the use of therapeutic horseback riding and service dogs.

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